The legend of King Arthur and the Knights Of The Round Table has been told and retold, and in many different ways, from Monty Python to Bugs Bunny to the Transformers. And yet none of them have Arty getting coffee…until now. Which is just one of the interesting revelations in the following email interview with Swapna Krisha and Jenn Northington, the co-editors of the new Arthurian short story collection Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices (paperback, Kindle, audiobook).
Swapna Krishna (photo courtesy of the author), Jenn Northington (Photo Credit: Swapna Krishna)
Let’s start with the basics: What is the Sword Stone Table collection about?
Jenn: It’s an anthology of retellings of Arthurian legends, with each writer putting their own spin on a familiar character or storyline. We’ve got Merlin and Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, Mordred, all the usual suspects — but the authors absolutely made them their own, in joyfully unexpected ways.
Who came up with this idea, and what made each of you decide that you not only wanted to help put it together, but that you were also a good person to put this together?
Swapna: This was Jenn’s idea. I’d always wanted to edit an anthology in theory, but I’m more of an execution person than an ideas person. Jenn had this fantastic idea, and I was completely on board.
Jenn: The seed honestly was, I just wanted to read more Arthurian retellings. And I’ve always loved anthologies; it didn’t become a “Maybe this is actually possible” until I started talking to Swapna about it. I knew we both loved the subject matter, read widely and voraciously, and had a lot of contacts with authors and in publishing, so once she was on board it was the start of a big experiment.
So how did you decide what writers you’d approach to contribute?
Jenn: Our initial spreadsheet of names was unbelievably long. We both sat down and thought about any and every author we’ve ever loved reading and might want to work with, then started narrowing down based on who we actually had a shot at, who we thought might already be an Arthuriana fan, which genres they wrote in, those kinds of details. We sent out far more asks than we got yeses for, which is how it always works. But everyone was so kind, regardless of their answer, and we’re overjoyed with the list of contributors in the book.
Aside from having to fit the theme, what other parameters were there for these stories? Did they have to be new, fit a certain word count, what?
Swapna: The parameters were pretty loose. We did have a target word count, but some came in under and others were over, and it wasn’t a big deal. Other than that, we did want many different genres, so at a couple of points we specifically asked writers for a certain kind of story — crime, romance, etc. And we kept an eye on the use of characters — we didn’t want to end up with 16 Merlin stories — but that never was an issue.
So what of those different genres does Sword Stone Table cover? Besides fantasy, of course.
Swapna: Jenn’s original idea was to do a cross-genre anthology, and I think that’s just what we did. We have historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, romance, mysteries, and even a coffee shop alternate universe story.
In the press materials, the list of writers and stories is broken up into three sections: “Once,” “Present,” and “Future.” Is the book split the same way?
Swapna: One of the main ways we approached this anthology was to make sure we didn’t bring preconceived notions of what a story should be or how someone should approach a legend or character. We wanted to see what would happen if we let people do what they wanted with these stories. It was similar with the story order — we knew we had to put them in some sort of order, but the “once” and “future” happened organically. Once we had all the stories in hand, we were able to look through and see the thread running through all the stories, and a big one was the time they were set. And because Arthur is the “Once And Future King,” it made a lot of sense to do it this way.
So, how often in the process of putting Sword Stone Table together did you have to tell one of the writers, “No, that just sounds like the original story but with different names”?
Jenn: Not even once. Everyone really took their own path, and we didn’t even have a single instance where people got too close to what another was working on.
And how often did you have to tell one of the writers, “No, that sounds too much like Monty Python And The Holy Grail“?
Swapna: Never! Jenn and I are both huge Monty Python fans. If that was someone’s preferred interpretation of the King Arthur mythology, then we would have told them to run with it. Our main goal was to provide a space for these incredible writers to tell the story they wanted to, not what we wanted them to.
Before you started work on Sword Stone Table, did you look at any other similar anthologies to see what to do, and what not to do?
Swapna: Absolutely. Young Adult has been doing excellent work with anthologies, putting together fantastic, inclusive collections that cross genre and are completely unexpected. We took inspiration from this and wanted to do something similar for the adult market.
Jenn: What Swapna said. And in terms of anthologies in the adult market, I was particularly inspired by The Djinn Falls In Love And Other Stories, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, and The Sea Is Ours, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng. These anthologies were so innovative, tapped such great contributors, and had such new ideas; they’re incredibly inspiring from a curatorial perspective, and so satisfying to devour as a reader.
So when it came to putting Sword Stone Table together, how was the work divided?
Swapna: We split the admin work evenly (and there was a lot more than we expected), and because we had sixteen contributors, Jenn managed eight and I managed eight.
Jenn: We also were very lucky in having a great, hands-on editor in Anna Kaufman; the actual editing process was very much a three-person endeavor.
So, Swapna, what did Jenn bring to the process that you did not?
Swapna: First and foremost, the idea for the anthology. Also, Jenn has so much experience in the book world. With her previous work in bookstores, and currently for Book Riot, she really is so aware of the writing world. It’s not just that she has contacts with fancy writers, though she does have that — but she knows who’s up and coming, who we should have our eye on, and who we should be aware of. It was incredible when we were putting together the contributor list because she had the best ideas of who to ask, people I never would have thought of.
And Jenn, same question to you about Swapna?
Jenn: Swapna has such a wealth of writing and editing experience, which is an area I know I have a lot of growing to do. I knew that she would bring a level of attention to detail, understanding about structure, and skill in working with writers that would be essential to the collection. She also has amazing connections in the book world thanks to her years as a reviewer and editor, and I think she herself brings a unique and important perspective to Arthuriana, thanks to her own background.
The legend of King Arthur and the Knights Of The Round Table have inspired a number of movies over the years. And not just funny ones like The Holy Grail. Do you think any of the stories in Sword Stone Table could be made into a cool movie?
Swapna: This is probably cliché, but I think every single story in this collection would make a fantastic movie. What I didn’t expect about these stories is that every single one is so visual. The descriptions are amazing, and you can really see them happening in your head as you’re reading.
Jenn: I agree, it is impossible for me to pick just one. Maybe something like a Black Mirror situation, an anthology show, except all Arthur all the time? I would watch the bejesus out of that. Netflix, call us!
Finally, if Sword Stone Table does well, your publisher, Vintage, may ask you to do a similar book about a different legendary figure. If that happens, who would you each want to do a similar book of stories about and why them?
Jenn: I have been thinking about this, and I have yet to settle on one specific answer. My brain is a bit like a pinball machine on this question, because there are so many different legends, folklores, and mythological traditions close to my heart.
Swapna: For me personally, I’d love to turn to Hindu mythology. The epic The Mahabharata is similar to the Arthur legend, in that there are so many threads and stories within a story. I’d love to tackle that for an anthology and see what authors could do in finding a piece of the legend and pulling it out to tell it in an entirely new way.
Jenn: I absolutely want to read Swapna’s Mahabharata collection!